I wish Jaxon was here now so we can get this over with, but the football team is practicing late again. They were three points shy of losing the game last week due to turnovers, so Coach has been drilling them hard all week. Which means I should probably keep an eye on Em and Quinn, in addition to Audrey.

I’ve parked myself down in the sand by the fire pit with a clear view of the parking lot. It’s the perfect spot to catch the first glimpse of Quinn, Em, and Audrey coming down the hill toward us. All of the girls here are in bikinis, but I didn’t really put two and two together that Audrey would wear one as well. Sure enough, I can tell that underneath that halter top she has on, she’s wearing a light-blue suit. My mouth is already drooling at the thought of what she looks like in it, while my eyes are scanning the area for anyone else who might be checking her out.

“Hey, Jace!” Em calls out excitedly to me.

“Hey girls,” I return. “Hey, babe,” I say, while looking directly at the only girl who has been able to fully capture my attention. “You look amazing,” I quietly express.

“Hi,” she softly replies. An easy smile hits her lips and all I want to do is pull her down on to my lap. Instead, I pat the ground next to me, but before she can make her way over, Max and Danny run up with surfboards in hand and dripping wet.

“What’s up, ladies,” Danny interrupts, giving each one a ridiculous wink.

“Come out with us,” Max says. “It’s amazing out there at night.”

“Jaxon would flip,” Em says and shrugs her shoulder.

“Um...” Audrey nervously shifts from one foot to the other and glances at me quickly before turning back to them. “I think I’m good here.”

“Come on, no one’s stopping you,” Max pleads, like the douchebag he is.

A few others join the group to talk to us, and Max is still looking at Audrey while she looks everywhere else.

Em looks down at me, then turns to Audrey and says, “You should go.”

“Yeah, the whole way here you were talking about getting in the water,” Quinn urges.

“No really, I’m good. I’m sure the water is freezing and I just...shouldn’t,” Audrey states.

“Not a good reason, babe.” With that, Max crouches down and throws Audrey over his shoulder. He has his surfboard in his opposite arm and he walks out toward the water without looking back.

As I watch his hands touch her skin, my blood begins to boil. I jump to my feet and shout, “Put her the f**k down!”

Max spins around with Audrey’s ass in the air and says, “And why’s that?” The cocky bastard is trying to push all of my buttons. If it had just been our little group, I would have said it. If Jaxon were here, I would have shouted it from the rooftops. In this moment, I want to yell to everyone here that she’s off limits. But Jaxon’s not here and there are too many observers that would get the news to him in less than five minutes.

I stand there breathing harshly, with everyone looking at me with confused expressions. All I can think about is the fact that Max still has his hand on the back of my girl’s thighs. He must have decided that I’m taking too long because, with an annoying laugh, he turns around and heads toward the surf again.

When he begins walking into the water, I hear Audrey shout something at him and then he slowly lowers her back to her feet. She steps out of the water quickly and back onto the sand. My heart rate increases, thinking she’s coming back up here to me. I don’t deserve for her to come back, but I’m vibrating with need.

She steps away from the tide and my mouth drops open when she begins to take off her shorts and halter-top. What’s left behind is mouth-watering. Her long legs are on full display under the light-blue bikini. Her porcelain skin glows in the moonlight, and I’d be an idiot to think that every other guy here isn’t thinking the same damn thing.

Timidly, she steps back into the ice cold water of the Pacific, standing on her tiptoes. I know how cold that bitch is. Although the water on this coast rarely heats to a warm temperature, it doesn’t seem to stop people like Max and Danny. Max is straddling his board in the water, calling for her to move faster. She shakes her head back and forth, lifting her legs out of the water with each step. Slowly, he starts to paddle his arms back over toward her.

When I realize she isn’t coming back anytime soon, I drop back down in the sand to watch them. I hear people sitting down around me and I sigh when I realize that one of them is Lane. Em and Quinn join me on the opposite side.

“Go ahead, dude. Lay into me,” I breathe out in a defeated tone.

Lane chuckles and says, “I think this is torture enough for you.”

We all watch as Max reaches Audrey’s side with a huge grin on his face. He’s having way too much damn fun out there. He stretches out for her hand and she glances back to the beach. At us. At me. A short beat later, she turns to look back at him and he pulls her onto his board to straddle it in front of him.

“She wanted you to say something.” Em’s brilliant observation rubs me the wrong way.

“Watch it...” Lane warns. Why is he being protective over her now?

“I was going to say something. Shit, if Jax had been here, I would have. But I don’t need the gossip crew to get to him first. He needs to hear it from me.” I pull my knees up and put my head in my hands. “Why the hell has this been so hard for me to tell him?”

“Because you don’t want to hurt your brother, Jace,” Quinn says. I always knew she was my favorite. “Plus, Em hasn’t been sharing well lately,” she giggles.

“I get it, I get it! I promise, I’ll let him out to play more often,” Em cries, throwing her hands up in mock defeat. “Jace, you know he’ll understand,” she adds.

Max tries to lay Audrey’s back up against his chest, but she slips out of it and turns to face him. Good girl. The two look at each other while straddling the board and talk as if they are old friends. The girls beside me giggle on about all of the places Em and Jaxon have been sneaking off to, while Lane and I glare out at the water.

“Do you love her?” Lane asks out of the blue. If I hadn’t already been sitting down, his question would have knocked me clear on my ass. I continue staring forward. “Okay, new question. Who was your last girlfriend?”

“No it wasn’t. Mandy was before Claire,” Quinn chimes in.

“Whatever, same difference. They were back-to-back,” I say in a clipped tone.

“Hey, remember when Tatum was trying to rub her huge rack on your arm earlier tonight? What color was her shirt?” Lane asks.

“Tatum was trying to do what on my arm?” I am completely confused by his line of questioning.

While nodding his head, he continues, “You know when Audrey does that nasty ankle popping thing?”

“Nasty? Dude, have you ever looked at her face when she’s doing that? It’s f**king adorable,” I laugh.

“And there you have it, ladies and gentlemen. The man is hooked,” Lane bellows out mockingly while clapping and whistling.

“Huh?” I reply. With wide eyes, I turn to frown at Quinn and Em, who are laughing their asses off.

“Dude, you’re already forgetting about your exes, you don’t even notice when a hot chick, annoying or not, rubs her tits on your freakin’ arm. I’m gonna need your man card back for that one, by the way.” He gestures with an open palm toward me. “And to top it off, you find Audrey’s irritating quirks adorable. Besides crazy, there ain’t any other word for it. You’re in love,” Lane states, matter-of-fact. He pounds me on the back and grips my shoulder tightly. “Oh, and by the way, you break her heart, I’ll break your neck. Welcome to the family, bro! Can’t get rid of me now,” he says in an annoyingly cheerful voice, all while I’m stunned to silence.

I’ve always wondered why guys go on the defensive when they’re told this piece of news about themselves. If you feel it, own up to it! But I’m starting to realize the weight this kind of information can have on someone. No one wants to be surprised with the fact that they are now completely vulnerable to another person. Now, whether you like it or not, you have to trust that this person won’t hand you your heart back in a million tiny abused pieces.

I’ve always wanted to be here. I’ve watched my two best friends arrive at this very moment, the one where they realize that the girl they’re with is the one. But now that I’m here, can I handle it? Can I hand myself over, raw and unguarded? But if I don’t give my heart to Audrey, would there ever be anybody else worth it? Hell no.

Quickly, I scramble up to my feet, grab Danny’s discarded board, and head out to the chilly ocean. I remove my shirt along the way, leaving my black shorts on. Quinn, Em, and Lane clap, hoot, and holler behind me excitedly, but I leave all thoughts of them behind in the damn sand.

I have to get this off of my chest now. Audrey isn’t the type of girl to wait around for anyone; she’s strong and she makes her own happiness. If she wants a bouquet of roses, she’s sure as hell not going to wait for me to give it to her. She’ll go out and plant her own f**king garden.

The patience and tolerance she’s shown by waiting for me to tell Jaxon has been astounding. She hasn’t complained once, and I have no doubt that most girls would have nagged me daily. Although sometimes I was so caught up in her that I honestly forgot about telling Jax, and maybe if she had nagged a little bit we wouldn’t be here right now.

Walking across the sand, I watch her floating on Max’s board with her head thrown back in laughter. I know she didn’t come out here to make me jealous, that’s just not how she is. She came to this party to have fun and she wasn’t going to wait for her pu**y boyfriend to man up. She went out and had her own fun. Damn it, it’s true. I do love this girl.

When I hit the water, I cringe at the subzero temperature. I jump under the waves to get the initial shock over with and swim with the board toward my girl. She and Max have drifted down shore a bit and Max is currently in the water, slowly kicking them back to where they started. Audrey has her feet on the board and she’s hugging her knees while listening to him talk.

I feel uneasy about him taking her out into the water at night. I’ve heard that even the strongest swimmers can get thrown off by where the coast is and they can’t see how far out they’ve gone. But Max is only a couple feet out and I can still touch the bottom. He spots me before she does and the as**ole smiles and nods his head in my direction. Audrey slowly turns, a curious look on her face, but when she see that it’s me coming for her, her mouth drops open in a wide gape.

“Babe, you’ve gotta be freezing,” I say when I reach them.

“It’s not that bad, pansy,” Max jests. “Just take my board, she’s already on it.”

“Thanks, man,” I say, while switching over to the board Audrey is perched on top of. After I pass Danny’s board to Max, I loop the leash around my wrist and secure it so I can’t lose the board.

“We’ll draw up that tattoo here pretty soon. I’ll catch ya later, babe.” He winks at her and quickly moves toward the shore before I can punch him for calling her ‘babe’ again.

“Another tattoo?” I eye her questioningly. Then, I lift my body up onto the board and she clenches the sides tightly to balance herself.

She shrugs her shoulders at my question and sheepishly replies, “I just wanted a little one right along here.” I watch as she drags her finger lengthways on the collarbone of her left shoulder.

Slowly, I lean forward and kiss the line she just drew. “Mmm, I like it here,” my voice vibrates into her skin.

I lean back and look into her eyes. I’m f**king scared to death to tell her what I need to say. There’s so much that could go wrong here. If she doesn’t say it back, how will I handle that? Jax went months telling Em he loved her before she could say it in return. I never heard him complain, but I think the bastard was just thankful she agreed to date him exclusively.

With Audrey, it’s different. She doesn’t hold back her feelings. If she isn’t able to reciprocate what I’m saying, it’s because she truly doesn’t feel it and that just sounds painful. My eyes search her face for the answer. I feel like it’s written clear as day all over her gorgeous features, but maybe I’m misinterpreting what I see.

“Audrey, I need you to say it.”

“Say what’s written all over your face. Say what’s on your fingers every time you touch me. Say what’s in your eyes every morning that we wake up together. Say what your body feels every time I’m inside of you. Please...just say it.” My voice is barely above a whisper, but judging by the expression on her face, she heard every word I said.

Her head begins to shake back and forth and an emotion I’m not familiar with engulfs her eyes. My heart plummets because this is exactly what I was afraid of. I’ve already come this far though to go back now.

“No, Audrey,” I say, a bit too harsh. “You love me. I know you do. I may have gone about this whole relationship all wrong with you and I know my life seems to be pulling me in a thousand different directions, but I know, with everything I have, that you feel it.” I reach my hand out and cover her heart, feeling the rapid thumping. “Baby, I love you too.”